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A State Manager Takes Over and Cuts What a City Can’t

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — Every first and third Monday of the month for as long as anyone can remember, this city’s elected commissioners have gathered in their musty second-floor chambers to contend with issues large and small — reports of gaping potholes, proposals to sell city land, an annual budget plan.

But as of this month, they are literally powerless, and hold no authority to make any decisions. Not even on potholes.

The city is now run by Joseph L. Harris, an accountant and auditor from miles away, one of a small cadre of “emergency managers” dispatched like firefighters by the state to put out financial blazes in Michigan’s most troubled cities.

In Benton Harbor, where, records show, finances have spiraled downward in a morass of commingled funds, puzzling accounting and unchecked spending, Mr. Harris has been handed sweeping new powers under recent state legislation that emergency managers like him say was needed to remedy dire situations.

Critics say the new powers, granted by the state’s new Republican leadership, are Michigan’s way to shrink benefits for public workers and undermine the strength of labor unions, just as officials have tried in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin.


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